The Episcopal Church's governing bodies have overwhelmingly approved a resolution making church marriages available to same-sex couples.
The House of Deputies, a voting body of clergy members and laypeople, OK'd the move by a vote of 173-27 Wednesday at the church's General Convention in Salt Lake City, the Associated Press reports. The House of Bishops had voted 129-26 Tuesday, with five abstentions, to send the resolution on to the deputies. The deputies also approved a gender-neutral prayer service for marriages. Clergy members remain free to decline to perform marriages they oppose.
Some dioceses had already allowed priests to perform civil same-sex marriages in places where they are legal, using a prayer service adopted on a trial basis. But this decision gives all couples access to the full religious marriage rite, effective November 29.
Retired Bishop of New Hampshire Gene Robinson, who in 2003 became the first openly gay man to be elected an Episcopal bishop, was gratified by the vote. "It's a day I wasn't sure I would live to see," he told the AP.
"What we're seeing, I think, in the Episcopal Church, and last week with the Supreme Court decision, is an entire culture evolving into understanding that gay and lesbian, bisexual and transgender people contribute just as much as anyone else to this society and deserve all the same rights," Robinson added.
The church's increasing inclusiveness of LGBT people has proved controversial, however. Robinson's election as bishop led some congregations to leave the Episcopal Church and affiliate with more conservative Anglican dioceses overseas. The Episcopal Church is the U.S. branch of the Anglican Communion.
Before Wednesday's vote, the head of the Anglican Communion, Archbishop of Canterbury Justin Welby, "issued a statement expressing deep concern about the move to change the definition of marriage," the AP reports.
The newly elected presiding bishop of the Episcopal Church has no such reservations, though. Bishop Michael Curry of North Carolina, who was elected presiding bishop last weekend, becoming the first African-American in that post, has allowed same-sex marriages in his diocese, and he said last Friday's Supreme Court decision for nationwide civil marriage equality "affirmed the authenticity of love," according to the AP.